Jane Mander's first ambition was to write fiction, and it is as a novelist that she is best remembered today. Through circumstances, however, journalism was to be her main occupation. She was born Mary Jane Mander on 9 April 1877 at Ramarama, south of Auckland, the eldest of five children of Janet Kerr and her husband, Francis (Frank) Mander, a farmer. In 1881 Frank bought a small sawmill and some bush at Awhitu, near the Manukau Harbour, and the family shifted there. Jane's formal schooling began at Wellsford in 1883, but was soon interrupted: it has been estimated that the Manders moved around 30 times as Frank searched for kauri to mill. From 1885 Jane attended Port Albert, Kaiwaka and Onehunga schools. When there were no schools to go to, her mother taught her and encouraged her gift for storytelling.
In 1892 at the age of 15 Jane returned to Port Albert to become a pupil-teacher. For the next seven years she taught at Devonport, Otahuhu and Newton West primary schools. She studied at night for her matriculation and in 1896 passed in eight subjects. At the end of 1899 she resigned from teaching in order to write a novel. By 1902 the family had moved to Whangarei where Frank Mander bought the Northern Advocate newspaper, and until 1906 Jane was its sub-editor and reporter.
As a young woman she longed to escape the 'brain-benumbing, stimulus-stifling, sense-stultifying, soul-searing silence' of provincial New Zealand, which she felt was restricting her intellectual growth. In 1907 and 1910 she visited Sydney and on the second occasion stayed for over a year. From Sydney she wrote for the Maoriland Worker under the pen-name Manda Lloyd (perhaps because her conservative father was now MP for Marsden). While there she also heard about the new School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, and decided to enrol.
Jane Mander left New Zealand in 1912 and went to England taking with her the manuscript of a novel; it was subsequently turned down by four publishers. In September she arrived in New York to start her university career at Barnard College, Columbia University. She studied English, French, history, science, philosophy, and politics, gaining A's for all subjects. A combination of ill health, lack of money and involvement in writing projects forced her to discontinue full-time study in 1914 and she did not graduate.
Mander had begun writing almost as soon as she arrived in America and had articles published in the New Republic; she also commenced work on a new novel. After the First World War broke out she put her writing to one side. She was employed in various jobs in support of women's suffrage and the war effort, and then began working for the American Red Cross as a warehouse administrator, a position she held until the end of the war.
In 1918 Jane Mander's most famous novel, The story of a New Zealand river, was accepted by the London publishing house of John Lane, but because of wartime restrictions was not published until 1920. It has since been republished three times, most recently in 1994. Set in a Northland timber-milling settlement, the novel focuses on the differences between two generations of women. It challenges the restrictive moral and social code of the main character, Alice Roland, and by contrasting her life with that of her daughter, Asia, explores the possibility of intellectual, sexual and emotional liberation for women. One of the distinctive features of the book is its confident sense of place: Mander captures the essence of the New Zealand bush and the speech of New Zealanders. The novel met with good reviews overseas, but some readers in New Zealand perceived in it undertones of immorality, and in the Whangarei Public Library, for example, the book was put on a discretionary shelf. Mander was to face persistent criticism in New Zealand for being 'obsessed by sex problems'.
Her next two novels, The passionate puritan (1922) and The strange attraction (1923), were also set in the north of New Zealand and drew on Mander's experiences: in the first, a young woman, Sidney Carey, arrives in a remote settlement to take up a teaching position; in the second, the heroine, Valerie Carr, is a newspaper journalist in a small town. Both novels deal again with the tensions between materialism, social constraints and the desire of educated young women for greater freedom. Mander was dissatisfied with these novels, saying that she had been 'wrongly persuaded' to write books that would film, 'a mistake I ever afterwards regretted'.
By the time Allen Adair (1925) was published, Mander had moved to London. This was her last book with a New Zealand background and is regarded by some as her finest work. The themes of the earlier novels are handled with greater subtlety and for the first time the characters interact naturally so that the work develops to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Her final two novels were set in the northern hemisphere, The besieging city (1926) in New York, and Pins and pinnacles (1928) in London and Paris. While technically accomplished, they were essentially romances written to make money.
The royalties from her novels did not provide a living, and when in London Mander wrote for the Christchurch Sun and the Auckland Sun, as well as other magazines and newspapers. She also read manuscripts to supplement her income, a job she hated. Later she worked for the printing house Harrison of Paris, which she enjoyed immensely. A contemporary described her at this time as 'tremendously articulate and exuberant'.
After nearly 10 years in London, in 1932 Mander returned to New Zealand. Her mother was seriously ill, and she herself had been unwell during 1931, had little money, and was homesick for Northland. She planned reminiscences and another novel, and her family had promised financial security and a place to write. The death of her mother altered the situation. Out of a sense of fairness to her sisters (two had married, while one, like her, remained single), she took over the care of her elderly father. Living with him in Auckland, she was soon overwhelmed with domestic duties.
From financial necessity Mander wrote articles, reviewed books for the Mirror and the Monocle and gave radio talks on a variety of topics. She associated with literary figures such as Monte Holcroft, Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, D'Arcy Cresswell and Robin Hyde, and even experienced writers valued her critical appraisal of their work. In a landmark series of articles which appeared in the Christchurch Press in 1934 she advised New Zealand novelists on how to break away from the local pitfalls of too much scenery and sentiment. Her humour, her vigour, and her respect for worthwhile writing is evident in these essays and in all her journalism. She was a founding member of the PEN New Zealand Centre and honorary vice president from 1932 to 1949 of the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society.
Adverse circumstances prevented Jane Mander completing another novel after her return to New Zealand, but it has also been suggested that her imaginative energy deserted her as the intellectual and political movements which had inspired her earlier work lost momentum. It was said of her later years that she was 'ill, angry and unsocial – frustrated, desperate for someone of her own mental calibre…Like a seagull – her voice was too harsh and complaining'.
Mander eventually shifted to Whangarei, where she died on 20 December 1949. Although her output is relatively small, her reputation as a novelist has grown since her death. Other contemporary writers addressed social issues in a local context, but few matched Jane Mander's technical facility, candour, and insight into personal relationships.